In Ralph Ellison' short story "Battle Royal," what is the significance of the fact that the narrator mixes up the terms "social responsibility" and "social equality" during his speech? What does the audience's reaction to his mistake suggest?
Near the end of Ralph Ellison’s short story “Battle Royal,” a young, unnamed, African-American protagonist gives a speech to an audience of powerful white men in a Southern town. The protagonist has been chosen to give this speech because of his academic excellence, but, before the speech is given, the young man is forced to participate in a humiliating and bloody ritual with nine other black youths. The blindfolded youths are forced to box with one another for the amusement of the whites. The protagonist is eventually one of the two boxers left standing. He is knocked out by his stronger opponent. When he awakens, he is still expected to deliver his speech.
In his speech, which he had previously prepared, he extols the person and doctrines of Booker T. Washington, the great African-American educator who had advocated for peaceful co-existence and cooperation with whites. Washington was often criticized by other blacks for being too timid, too acquiescent in his attitudes toward achieving racial equality. As he recounts the delivery of his speech, the narrator comments:
All had to be said, each memorized nuance considered, rendered. Nor was that all. Whenever I uttered a word of three or more syllables a group of voices would yell for me to repeat it. I used the phrase "social responsibility" and they yelled.
"What's the word you say, boy?"
"Social responsibility," I said.
"Social . . ."
". . . responsibility."
The room filled with the uproar of laughter until, no doubt, distracted by having to gulp down my blood, I made a mistake and yelled a phrase I had often seen denounced in newspaper editorials, heard debated in private.
"Social . . ."
"What?" they yelled.
". . . equality—.”
The laughter hung smokelike in the sudden stillness. I opened my eyes, puzzled. Sounds of displeasure filled the room. The M.C. rushed forward. They shouted hostile phrases at me. But I did not understand.
A small dry mustached man in the front row blared out, “Say that slowly, son!
"What you just said!"
"Social responsibility, sir,” I said.
"You weren't being smart, were you boy?" he said, not unkindly.
"You sure that about 'equality' was a mistake?"
"Oh, yes, Sir," I said. "I was swallowing blood.”
This is a crucial moment in the tale. “Social responsibility” – the doctrine associated with Washington – is what the whites expect and want to hear. “Social equality,” on the other hand, is the last thing they want to consider, let alone practice. By making the mistake of mentioning “social equality,” the protagonist has inadvertently raised the specter of a loss of power by the whites he is addressing. By uttering a phrase with radical, revolutionary implications, he has momentarily challenged the whites without even intending to do so. His slip of the tongue, however, can be seen as a “Freudian slip,” revealing what he unconsciously desires even if he doesn’t intend to say so.